Monday, June 3, 2013

Great Tew, Oxfordshire

Backward glance (3): Not quite what it seems, not quite what it seemed

The third of my backward glances, taken because my current personal circumstances are limiting my travels in search of English buildings, pitches me back to the Cotswolds, the part of England where I grew up. What follows is actually a reprise of two connected posts about the Oxfordshire village of Great Tew.

Many people will know Great Tew as one of the most picture-postcard-perfect limestone villages, chocolate-box England. It's the sort of place that brings out the worst in the cliché-mongers who write about the English countryside,  the kind of language that John Russell, many years ago, referred to as 'the strange sexual-anthropomorphic idiom of English country-writers, in which villages nestle, valleys girdle, and rivers are said to have issue'. The nestling here is done by warm stone cottages among greenery and it is the kind of place to trick us into the illusion that it has always been this way…

Great Tew is all like this – thatched roofs, glowing, almost toffee-coloured ironstone walls, evergreen trees and hedges, all tucked neatly away in deepest North Oxfordshire. It’s archetypal rural England, the kind of village that’s been here for hundreds of years, growing organically and acquiring more patina with each century. But that’s not quite the story. The village is actually the creation of the early-19th century, when the estate was remodelled and the village became a star feature in the landscape. Thatched roofs were fitted or repaired, Gothic details added to the cottages, trees and hedges planted. The result is an uncanny combination of model estate village and old England. It’s not known for sure who masterminded the transformation, but the brain behind it might well have been landscape-gardener, writer, and horticulturalist J C Loudon. Loudon managed the estate for a few years and established a model farm. Whoever it was distilled the essence of the English village and left it in this North Oxfordshire valley.

My first post left something unsaid, something about my earliest experience of Great Tw, when I went there as a teenager in the early 1970s. Then the place was a far cry from idyllic. Half of it seemed to be falling down. Something had gone wrong, badly wrong…

Several people responded to my post about Great Tew with memories of how the place used to be about thirty years ago – neglected, with tattered thatch, broken windows, and a few tenants hanging on amongst the dilapidation. I seem to remember that the Sunday Times of the Harold Evans era featured it in a piece about shamefully unmaintained villages left to go to ruin by their landlords. When I went there in the 1970s the plight of the residents was dire. It seemed to take one back to the debunking essays of Robertson Scott (England's Green and Pleasant Land was the ironic title of his most famous book) that showed country life in the early 20th century for what it really was – cold, hard, and painful for many. And yet the place had an eerie quality evocative of another time that no spruced-up picture-postcard village could ever have had. The lost domain.

As far as I can remember, when I made that first visit there were already being efforts made to repair some of the houses and to put the village back on a sound footing. But the overwhelming impression was one of desolation. I knew that country life could be hard (memories of my grandparents in rural Lincolnshire involved bringing in pails of water from a spring, cooking on a coal range, oil lighting, and so on). But this was a far harder life. It jolted me into realization that country life was often far from idyllic and that warm stone could form a home to cold realities.

The photograph of the dilapidated cottage comes from TrekEarth, here, with thanks to Liberal England for the original link.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I feel one has to be careful in debunking the "picture postcard village" kind of discourse: we constantly (often by surprise) come across villages of this sort - Mells in Somerset is another example - where everything seems to be "just perfect". However, if it really were "timeless" and "growing organically out of its environment" it should be a ruin in a wood by now: the picture-postcard village is the product always of careful maintenance and the initiative of householders. But what is it in the English character that prevents us from simply enjoying it? Does it even matter if it's "spurious" or "genuine"? I'm sure Loudon, as a gardener, would have been the first to point out that the perfect landscape is the product of an annual commitment to plant, prune, repair fences, etc. His Encyclopaedia of Trees and Shrubs, 1869, a copy of which I have in front of me, is precise, scientific, with no flights of romantic fantasy as far as I can see: the aesthetic comes from the practical application of knowledge and skill. The moral is - if we wanted to make a picture-postcard village from scratch, we have the technology! It doesn't have to be something mystical from the mists of history. But the national psyche has to believe in that sort of thing as well: it goes with the territory. If we simply rubbish it - what can we offer in its place?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, I agree, on the whole. Places are interesting, whether they have been created in one go by some master planner or grown more haphazardly. Or indeed are a mixture of the two. I was amused once when standing looking at some Victorian Gothic building by a man who came up to me and said something along the lines of, "Interested in the building, are you? Of course, it's not real."